J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit is getting the three-part Hollywood treatment and marks the return of the Elvish languages to the big screen.
It's a reminder of just how inventive fiction writers have been over the years in dreaming up new tongues.
Think of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, with its thuggish Russian-inflected slang called Nadsat — a girl is a devochka, a friend a droog.
This urge to create new words starts at a young age. Children often make up words before they have a proper command of their native tongues.
“We enjoy exercising the way we produce sounds,” said Indiana University’s Michael Adams, editor of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages.
Adams says he likes to play with the sounds of language.
”In the car or the shower or wherever I am," he said. "In the way that I suppose a poet has to think about sound and language.”
Tolkien needed to do a lot of that. A trained philologist, he did it for years before creating his fantasy world.
He worked on his fantasy languages during World War I, to help pass the time, Adams says.
“He did a lot of language invention and some of the prehistory of the language of Elvish is from those days in the trenches,” he added.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings came decades later. By then, Tolkien had imagined an entire history of his imagined languages.
“He would even leave unexplained thing in the languages he was working on,” Adams said. “Any real language you were reconstructing would have unexplained things in it too. So he was trying to mimic behavior of natural language very closely.”
That degree of detail may be unrivaled among novelists. First, consider what most language creators do in their novels: they set up thought experiments.
In her science fiction novel, The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin created the Pravic language. Or rather, she created a breakaway society of anarchists who themselves created Pravic.
This group of anarchists “want to remove from the language anything that implies ownership,” Le Guin said.
Any kind of private possession. Your name doesn’t belong to you — it is assigned to you, after someone else with that name dies and the name can be recycled.
That’s reflected in Pravic too: the language has no possessive pronouns.
That was the thought experiment. Could words shape thought, could a language make people behave a certain way? It’s a linguistic hypothesis much poo-pooed by academic linguists, not that it worries Le Guin.
China Miéville's recent novel Embassytown contains another thought experiment, which owes a debt to Gulliver’s Travels. Miéville created a language for a group of aliens called the Ariekei.
It’s a language that mimics language of the garden of Eden, where the word is the thing. In other words, there’s no difference between an apple, and the word for an apple.
The Ariekei can’t lie.
“If they want to use figurative speech at all they have to construct a situation which they can then refer to,” Miéville said. “If you wanted to say ‘oh I feel like an angry lion today’ you would have to get a lion and make it angry. Otherwise you couldn’t say it because it didn’t exist.”
Miéville came away from his thought experiment with the view that human language is a good thing. It allows us to use metaphor, as well as to lie.
But there's a writer who may have out-Tolkiened Tolkien, at least in terms of creating a language. French author Frédéric Werst has published something approximating a novel called Ward. It’s about a group of people called The Ward who speak a language called Wardwesân. The entire work is written in that language, with a parallel French translation.
Indiana's Adams says Werst is the first novelist he knows of “who’s tried to do a literary work from start to finish in a language never before known in the world.”
Tolkien never went that far, though he did tell his publisher that wished he could have included more of his fictional languages in his novels. Restraint, in that case, was probably wise.
Tolkien remains an inspiration to others. He wrote about inventing languages in an essay called The Secret Vice. Le Guin called it a charming language.
“He’s thought of the fact that there just are a bunch of us who love to invent languages as well as to learn them,” Le Guin said. "A lot of kids do a certain amount of it and some people carry it on all their lives. It’s like kids who draw maps of imaginary islands. Some of us go on doing it until we’re 80.”